Have you ever wondered about the view from behind the piano keyboard?
How does someone become a dance accompanist? And how might a dance school welcome and make room for an accompanist in their studio?
Richard Maddock, an experienced dance accompanist will share his story in this two-part interview… Plus some helpful tips, what he feels is most important in the communication between teacher and pianist, and the tremendous respect for dancers which comes from 25 years of witnessing their training.
Richard is currently Head Accompanist at The Pia Bouman School of Creative Movement and Ballet, in Toronto, Canada. Richard’s full-length CDs for dance and creative movement have garnered enthusiastic praise from dancers worldwide, including me! I reviewed several of Richard’s CDs right here on Dance Advantage and have been pleased to set my ballet classes to his works since.
I have included videos featuring Richard’s accompaniment and compositions. Feel free to press play so that Richard can accompany your reading as well!
How did you get started as a dance accompanist?
My older brother had been playing for a ballet school for a few years, and he asked me one day if I would like to try and fill in for him as he was going away to university. Even though I was only fourteen years old at the time, I was able to sight read very well and thought that it was a wonderful opportunity to make money doing something I loved to do – play the piano! I have been playing for ballet schools ever since.
Thinking back, did you discover anything about working with dancers/dance instructors that was at first a surprise or unexpected?
The very first ballet class I played for was a big surprise, because I had no idea what to expect or what would be expected of me by either the teacher or the dancers. I walked into the studio and the first person I saw was the teacher (who seemed to me to be very old), holding a lit cigarette in one hand and a cane in the other! She smoked her cigarette while she taught, and made sure to let the dancers know that she was quite able to use the cane if necessary!
Dancers were expected to have the perfect bun, professional outfits, to be at the studio half an hour early to do warm-ups on their own, and to be at the barre at the minute that their class was to start. No one was allowed to talk unless they raised their hand and any questions had to be relevant to what they were doing. If any of these rules were not followed, they were kicked out of the studio and were not allowed to come back in for that class.
The teacher was very kind to me and I remember feeling that it sort of came naturally to me to play for dancers. I know that I was nervous, especially playing for the adult dancers. I was very small and really looked young at the age of 14 and I think that the dancers thought that I was going to play horribly. Thankfully, all went well!
Do you work improvisationally in the classroom, from sheet music, from memory, all of the above?
The majority of studios where I have played follow the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) syllabus. For these classes, from pre-primary all the way up to Solo Seal, I play the repertoire that is specified in the RAD syllabus. During these classes (depending on the teacher and how close or far away they are from the exam date), “free work” is also a part of the class, so I watch and listen to the teacher setting the exercises and improvise accordingly.
I don’t have a repertoire of compositions that I have memorized to play when “free work” is called for. I prefer to create in the moment, guided by what I see, by the energy of the dancers and the feeling in the room. Quite often, I also play for “free classes” as well (for which there is no set syllabus), and these are the classes I prefer to accompany.
The Dance Between Accompanist, Teacher, and Students
When working with a teacher for the first time, what do you like to try to communicate, establish, or glean before you begin class with him/her?
This is a hard question to answer, because for the last ten years or more, I have played mostly for the same teachers. There is an understanding on both the part of the teacher and myself that they can focus on their class and trust that I will be giving what they need from me, musically speaking.
If a student teacher filling in for someone, I can usually see if they are nervous about working with an accompanist. If this is the case, I take time before class to reassure the teacher that they have no need to worry and that they just need to focus on the dancers. Usually after the first few minutes of class, they realize that I am with them and doing all I can to help make the class go well. I see the teacher and I as two artists working together to create a successful class for the dancers.
As a teacher gives instructions before each exercise, what is it most important that he/she be clear about?
What is most important is that I see them marking the exercise for the dancers in the tempo that they want. For free classes, it is also important to get a sense of the dynamics of the particular exercise. Usually all that I need to see is the first 8 or 16 bars of an exercise and then (while the teacher continues to set the exercise) I wait for the melody to “appear.” I think that every accompanist would most likely answer this question differently, though.
You’ve played in classes with young children. Are they ever distracted by your presence and do you or the teacher do anything to prepare the children?
Generally, I don’t think that young children are distracted by my presence, because I am there from the first day they start dancing. If it is the very first class that the young dancers have ever taken, the teacher will gather all the children around the piano and we will be introduced to one another — and this is usually all that is necessary for them. I am careful to maintain a low profile in class, to be quiet and to avoid talking to the teacher or the students while the class is being conducted, unless absolutely necessary. I want the focus to stay on the music and on the teacher!
If the children are used to another accompanist playing for their classes, and all of a sudden one day I am there playing for the class, then they are usually quite curious about me and ask what happened to the other pianist. But again, an introduction is all that is usually required, and they quickly re-focus on the teacher and carry on dancing.
In Part Two Richard gives his thoughts on the basic necessities for a studio that wishes to have a dance accompanist. Plus an inspiring description of his view from the piano bench.
Do you or have you considered using a live musician at your school to accompany dance?
Why or why not?
Nichelle Suzanne is a writer specializing in dance and online content. She is also a dance instructor with over 20 years experience teaching in dance studios, community programs, and colleges. She began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. As a Houston-based dance writer, Nichelle covers dance performance for Dance Source Houston, Arts+Culture Texas, and other publications. She is a leader in social media within the dance community and has presented on blogging for dance organizations, including Dance/USA. Nichelle provides web consulting and writing services for dancers, dance schools and studios, and those beyond the dance world. Read Nichelle’s posts.